Tech Potential and Promise of CinemaCon 2017 – Part 1.5

By C J Flynn | April 7, 2017 6:10 pm PDT
CinemaCon 2017

CinemaCon is a NATO construct built on the pillars of The Exhibitor’s movie palaces, The Studio’s mix of movies, and The Techniques and Technology that brings them to life. The pillars sit on a wild and nuanced history which reflects forward to a constantly changing future…

…and then it’s nuance, all the way down.

This is part 1.5 of the Pre-CinemaCon Celluloid Junkie article on Tech Potential and Promise of CinemaCon 2017.  In it you were promised answers about the quest for Better Pixels in Cinema, what that quest means for the entire ecosystem in general and exposition in particular…and hoping that careful research during the show would bring clarity. One would think that after 10 years of watching laser illuminated projectors transition from an R&D project to a shipping product last year, where we thought we would find maturity and direct answers, there are still many things to learn. The show brought a lot more questions which will take more interviews and research which be delivered in future articles. These are some of the highlights of the show from that HDR perspective.

There is also another more rounded article will be posted shortly on CinemaCon 2017. It is a group discussion with Julian Pinn and David Hancock, J Sperling Reich and C J Flynn joining Patrick von Sychowski.

Disruptive Like

The term ‘disruptive’ gets thrown around a lot in an environment like this. Disney is disruptive as it gets all of its 4 studio cylinders firing off consecutive exceptional years. Wanda/AMC is disruptive as it links a worldwide network of cinema chains. And suddenly the term  ‘disruptive technology’ was being used at CinemaCon 2017 this week.

With both Sony and Samsung showing emissive displays – one at a distance and to a controlled crowd, and one very up close and personal to anyone who found the display room – we got to see the beauty and the grit of a technology that may eventually find a way to transfer from home and marketing displays into the cinema world.

At best, for the foreseeable future, using a large LED based display in the cinema will be another proprietary shared ticket experience. This may define another niche segment of the market now held by IMAX and DolbyCinema, but that doesn’t make it ‘disruptive’.

Traditionally, a disruptive technology makes inroads into the low end of a market, honing the development and market expectations until productizing and performance match the capabilities of the previous ‘sustaining’ products. Contrary to that, as is true of DolbyVision, the R&D costs of a large emissive display like we saw in the theater at The Orleans is extremely expensive, made more so given the relatively small size of the market. Samsung need to launch big, refined and with a complete infrastructure that accounts for everything. Notably, these players have other markets to socialize their expertise and name into, and derive the profits from as they try to define the high end of a market.

Without going into a lot of details – which is unfair to a work in progress – there are still many basic science and consumer questions about how the human visual system reacts in that much light in a dark movie theater. Sony and Samsung showed clips at high brightness: Samsung at 146 footlambert (ft/L) which in candela per square meter (cd/m2, or ‘nits’) is the very round number, 500 – which is 10 times the luminance on a standard cinema theater screen and Sony at 1,000 nits (292 ft/L.) [Edited to revise luminance level of Sony system.]

Compared to the outside world, that is not much light. On an average day we’re exposed to scenes that measure in the thousands, with bright spots in the 10s of thousands. But in a darkened theater, we expect and are comfortable with far less than 50 nits,  especially given that most movie scenes are less than a 10 nits. Not only have we each had thousands of paying people/hours who have watched movies at that brightness, but the electro/mechanical/chemical nature of the human visual system reacts to bright light in ways that require time to get our full capabilities back.

DolbyVision limits their peak luminance to 106 nits, a little more than twice typical. This is the place for the reminder: Engineering is the Art of Compromise. An engineering rule of thumb is that compared to what we get by making refinements in the ability to see in the dark areas, we don’t get as much color and detail benefit by increasing luminance. Plus, if the combination of a wide iris (from dark scenes in a dark room) and a big spot of white (from a scene that lasts more than a few milliseconds of bright light) bleaches out the chemicals that our cones need to pass electrical signals to the brain, it takes minutes to get our color and dark sensing abilities back.

So, as much as it may be possible to seat patrons at candle-lit tables so they can have a meal and watch a movie at a brightness that lets them ignore other light sources, is this a scenario that will bring enough clients to pay for a shared ticket business proposition? (…OK; clause 67b, we get a larger cut of any porcini dishes but can’t be involved in any alcohol, whether used for cooking or drinking…).

An image of a clip shown on the Sony display at CinemaCon (photo: Patrick von Sychowski – Celluloid Junkie)

A recent example of the potential problem of releasing a technology before its time is the arc of 3D in the cinema. It was introduced with great excitement, but unfortunately it was released after the early adapting exhibitors were already exhibiting with digital cinema projectors that had no additional headroom to adjust for the extra lumens required to do 3D well. The industry didn’t adjust by putting new extra power projectors and keeping the 3D only in those auditoriums. Rather, the movies were shown in as many rooms as possible, most often with light as low as 1/10th of the required amount. People complained of a myriad of problems, many of which would have been solved or ignored if the picture were great.

Now, we are shown a technology with 10 and 20 times the luminance. Whether or not the audience is ready for it, post production certainly isn’t. Extra light shows off errors in motion and CGI, some of which might be able to be handled now but certainly some will need iterations of development from tool makers and tools users. What we know from three years of Atmos experience is that the director and the mixer and audience needs time to catch up – some are asking for more ‘effects’ to match the upcharge required to pay for the extra equipment, some are still more comfortable with subtlety. And what we know from the Billy Lynn experience, even once a director identifies problems and solutions and works hard to get the technology right, the audience has to be ready to both grow away from the old look and into the new.  

To their credit Samsung, which now owns the long cinema history of Harman/JBL, is said to have gone through the process of getting their product through the DCI Cinema Test Plan (See <> to see the actual listing when it happens). Learning the details of how they prevent a piratable RGB output from the data ports at each block will be interesting for us in the Standards Community. Learning how much they will be willing to subsidize the initial installations and subsidize the making and distribution of masters particular to their light levels will be even more interesting for us who live vicariously near the shoulders of giants.

I sat with many exhibitors to understand their views. There is a belief that this technology can address a major problem – the current excuse the studios use to further close the exhibition-to-home window. They want to cater to the crowd (of unknown size) who have or will have home cinema systems great enough to keep them from the public cinema, and only make their advertising spend once. This solution, of course, will require a system that physically and financially fits comfortably into a room with a comparably small handful viewers…probably not what the ticket sharing model leans to for the first iterations, and certainly not a large enough model to call ‘disruptive’.

There are always clever and promising technologies that come along at the end of a technology arc, too late usually to salvage or even suspend the declining trend of the mature technology. Emissive displays that will hold their own against candle lit tables at in-theater cinema restaurants also probably come too late and too expensive to beat what is on the negotiating table, given what the studios have offered – a $50 download to the home cinema patron 3 weeks after the release with a sharing of the ‘profits’ to the cinema chain. In the past, NATO spokespersons and large exhibitors have drawn a line in the sand on the window issue, playing the only card that they have – which is not to play the studio’s card, a release they think is big enough to not be boycotted. This year’s response is that there will be no response while discussions are on-going about on-going discussions on-going. First one who blinks, and not because of brightness…

Dolby's DCI compliance for its IMS3000 IMB. (screenshot
Dolby’s DCI compliance for its IMS3000 IMB. (screenshot

Actual Disruptive Potential

One actual disruptive technology shown at CinemaCon 2017 are a series of products that were shown as science projects last year – shown this year as ready to ship. Besides being a clever and needed product, Dolby’s new cinema-centric amplifier has many design features that make it ‘disruptive’. Reason? Because it allows an innovation that heretofore only fills a niche of the market – there are less than 5,000 Atmos systems in a universe of 165,000 cinema auditoriums  – to be delivered to a far wider part of the customer pyramid, perhaps eventually a majority segment of the market. 32 audio channels in a 4U box is one part of a trio that facilitates that same goal. Dolby’s new IMB/IMS unit that includes all the Atmos essentials. (The DCI Compliance page <> shows that it was listed on the week before CinemaCon started.) And Dolby’s newly introduced multi-axis speaker from subsidiary SLS which slides into ceiling tile grids <> also should counter another cost of installation problem that would otherwise keep the innovation a niche one rather than one that will redefine Normal.

Disruptive Needs a Trend and a Rounded Experience

The laser situation on the floor was a little odd.

NEC, which showed the first purchasable laser system (using blue laser/yellow phosphor technology) at CinemaCon 2015 now have two evolved systems available and promise their RGB unit in the near future. There are still NEC dealers and installers with xenon-bulb driven projectors in stock, but NEC will doubtless announce the end of xenon soon.  

If memory serves, NEC threw the first monkey-wrench of blue-lasers life expectancy, pointing out in their slide set that the power output in lumens diminishes to 50% after a few years, then stays stable at that 50% for several several more years. We may have learned that information earlier at the SMTPE/NAB Cinema conferences, but NEC socialized it and now it is an important part of the Christie slide set. Historically, exhibitors who got caught with projectors that were spec’d at just enough to cover the 2D brightness for a particular auditorium will be wary of numbers like this since they now know that this often isn’t optimum.

Exhibitors walked away from Christie confused. Were they promoting lasers for use today or nay-saying? They point to new technologies that make it more compelling to buy in the future, though they have an expanding line now. More than one exhibitor chalks it up to USHIO wanting to keep selling bulbs. Another pointed out that since USHIO owns the company that supplies all the other companies their laser components, Necsel, they win regardless of who sells more.

While it is true that USHIO does sell bulbs, and it makes for a great conspiracy, most management know that controlling micro events like profiting from selling a few hundred or even thousands of something like xenon bulbs against not selling dozens or hundreds of laser light driven projectors and losing momentum in a fairly small market isn’t a long term controllable goal. And while Necsel is a USHIO subsidiary, and they do have a terrific green laser that is sold to other manufacturers, the blue and reds required for a 6P RGB or laser phosphor projector can be sourced from other places or Necsel might even package non-Necsel devices as part of their portfolio.

Anyway, confusion in the marketplace – though at least they aren’t saying that they have over a 1,000 engineers at Necsel working solely on Christie solutions as they did last year at IBC.

DC training Aug 16. (photo: Barco)
DC training Aug 16. (photo: Barco)

There was much less laser confusion at the Barco end of the aisle. Their entire cinema line of projectors is laser illuminated: They’ve announced that there will be no more xenon bulbs. Between retrofits and new sales, between laser phosphor – what they are calling the Smart Line – and RGB lasers – which are now divided between a standard line and a High Contrast line – they have 1,500 units in the field and had more than a couple Press Releases about more during the show.

And to mollify the doubt about Smart Lasers life expectancy, they are giving a 10 year warranty. What that warranty really means to the user is interesting (See: <!>). The top line numbers are that after 10 years or 40,000 hours there will be greater than 50% light output.

Barco SmartCare
Barco SmartCare

The bottom line number is not so easy since what an exhibitor really needs is a warranty that states that at the 10 year mark, after a mix of “X” percent 2D and “Y” percent 3D that the projector will still put out the light required to keep within SMPTE/ISO specs and recommended practices. It is up to the Barco calculator and the customer’s sense of self-protection to figure out how to buy right.

There is some cool nuance in the other warranty points. One major problem in the progress of SMPTE Compliant DCP delivery – the benefits of which deserve a different article – is that upgrades are not made in a timely manner. Barco’s SmartCare automates firmware upgrades. And why can they do that? Because the purchase of the product contains remote system monitoring…Barco has their own NOC and the projector is automatically included in it.

That is how disruptive technology works.

The Middle Third

One of the quests stated in the first article is looking for the high end of the market as if IMAX and DolbyCinema were in a separate universe. What’s required, what to name it, how to protect it from the low end misrepresenting some super buzzword but not system-compliant acronym?  

One thing that is mandatory is Dark. There are a number of architects with booths on the floor of CinemaCon. I didn’t talk to them all so that I could say that “All of the architects who I spoke to said the same thing” …without embarrassing any of them. With each, I went through the spiel looking for a blaze of excitement behind the eyes – Contrast ratios are going up, but since luminance can only double, darks have to be squeezed for all they can get. “Any stray light on the screen eats hard fought for contrast”, I said. I asked if any of their clients are asking for this, more dark. None of them had read the RealD or Barco or Dolby SMPTE papers on this issue. None of them have had clients who had this on their list of issues.

That isn’t good. Dark is good. This needs to be socialized.

Another consideration is the whether or not higher brightness projectors need a new color pass, and at what level.

Part of the dark history of recent times (since 4K DLPs), most color timing has been done at 1700:1 or lower. So if a laser illuminated projector is 3000:1 or 6000:1, or like Sony’s mercury lamp projectors, 8000:1, this is a significant amount more light.

The only company who has stepped in to fill this void on a formal basis is Eclair with a system that they have coined as EclairColor. There have been recent press releases from software tool companies and post houses that now have the EclairColor imprimatur as they make their efforts known and available.

As noted earlier, there is no magic button that says, Adjust for 2X or 3X or 4X more brightness or depth in the shadows. If we can think of colors as cards in the deck that diverge one shade value more or and one shade value less with each card, when more contrast is available there are more cards, more shades of that one hue. At one point the director may have been happy to settle at one level or look, but with more shades, more nuance can be applied to separate things in one instance or bring them steps closer in another instance.

EclairColor has a long history in Europe, similar to Technicolor here in the States as an example of innovators and a client facing workhorse in the film era. It was bought by the Ymagis Group which has been selling and integrating Cinema products and VPFs and distributing movies during the film to digital transition. They have a hard road to install that sensibility of need and ethos into a market that is diverted by so much going on. Comments were made during the last weeks that they (studios) weren’t getting requests for EclairColor from clients (cinemas), so it is low on their horizons. This is a classic Chicken / Egg scenario where perhaps unlikely partners will be needed to fill the gaps.

Suffice to say, there is many more angles to that and other tangents of Better Pixels. We’ll dive into it more in the next of this series. 

C J Flynn